There is something rather irritating about the oft-quoted phrase ‘global Britain’.
But, it seems to have become permanently ingrained in the vocabulary of a Whitehall still intent on parading its post-Brexit myths within the murmurs of a lost imperial Britain.
It was this irritation that sparked my inspiration to author a very flippant, but albeit relevant, tweet mocking the UK’s post-referendum trading agreements compared to that of the EU. The government’s abnegation needed bringing to the surface.
An abrogation of free trade
Looking back, perhaps it was disingenuous to list only the Faroe Islands – after all, 240 characters do not tell the whole story. The issue of international trade is, after all, abstruse.
But nevertheless, the Department of International Trade seems unable to understand that ‘continuity’ agreements with relatively small economies such as the Faroe Islands – with a mere 50,000 inhabitants – hardly vindicates the UK’s abrogation of free trade with its biggest export partner which accounts for 46 per cent of our exports and has just signed trade deals which cover 500,000,000 civilians.
The European Union, a trading bloc in its own right, has around 40 trade deals covering more than 70 countries.
For the UK, this has proven an immense benefit. As a member of the EU, we are able to trade with nations such as Canada without the imposition of tariffs on goods leaving and entering.
But this could be set to change in the event of a no-deal Brexit, whereupon the UK would lose access to these markets and be forced to trade under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
There is no denying that the UK government is in the process of preparing for this eventuality. The Department of International Trade says it wants to replicate the EU’s trade agreements “as far as possible.”
So how many trade deals has the UK rolled over?
In short, and despite the frenetic efforts by ministers to ensure the preservation of international trade after Brexit, the Department of International Trade has only negotiated 13 “continuity” deals – covering 38 of the 69 nations that the UK trades with under preferential EU trade agreements.
The department has yet to sign agreements with several major UK trading partners including Canada, Japan and Turkey.
Canada, Japan, South Korea (with which the UK has agreed a deal) and Turkey alone accounted for goods exports worth £25billion in 2017 and imports of merchandise worth £28.6billion, with the UK currently able to access these markets on preferential terms as part of membership of the EU.
A herculean task
So, there has been some progress – emphasis on ‘some’. But securing deals in time for 31 October seems an almost herculean task.
The government has had three years to just about scrape through, and it has failed to even do that.
According to Alan Winters, director of the UK Trade Policy Observatory at the University of Sussex: “You can’t roll over everything – these existing agreements will have references to EU law, so you cannot avoid some negotiation.”
It is important to remember that in 2015, countries with EU trade agreements accounted for over 15 per cent of all British imports and exports. Without these deals, the UK would be thrust into World Trade Organisation terms with these countries.
Tariff increases and stringent customs checks
Britain’s exporters would face costly tariff increases and in some cases more stringent customs checks, with average tariffs levied from between five per cent (Israel) to almost 30 per cent (Egypt).
The UK would also have to impose tariffs, raising consumer prices.
Britain would lose deeper access to services, as it would no longer participate in the 14 services agreements struck by the EU, including the trade agreement concluded with South Korea.
Recently, Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, said: “Many in the business community feel that [Fox] has diverted too much of his department’s resources on entirely new free trade agreements.
“And so keen has he been to grandstand with the news that he’s ignored the fundamental grinding work of securing what we already have.”
A British global economic conquest
Today, as Boris Johnson attempts to negotiate his version of Brexit, we should be reminded that the notion of a British global economic conquest is difficult to countenance.
Perhaps we should blame this on a naive and nationalist esprit de corps. We should blame it on the insouciant je ne regrette rien style of a government deluded in the belief it can negotiate a deal better than the one it already has.
Either way, the government’s inability to secure adequate trading arrangements post-Brexit brings to the fore an embarrassing irony – that by leaving the EU, Britain can never be truly ‘global’.